Yesterday I watched a woman gently coax her adolescent son away from the edge of a meltdown. As they headed toward the exit of the store we were all in, he began waving his arms and grunting “No” in a loud voice. “It’s OK, David,” the woman said quietly, stroking his back. “Take a deep breath. It’s OK.”
I caught myself looking over at the two of them. I marveled at her ability to speak only in a tone of tenderness and compassion, not desperation or nervousness or embarrassment at causing a scene.
It’s in moments like this that I wish there was a secret hand gesture, a high-five or a thumbs up, that would let that other person know: “Hey, I’ve been there. I see you. You’re doing a great job. If you need a hand, let me know.”
If she had looked at me, she probably wouldn’t have seen any of that. She would have seen a stranger staring at her, straining to send off vibes of empathy that probably look a lot like pity. And maybe that would have flustered her and caused her pain. So instead, I ignored her, turning back to the rack of dresses as if they were the most interesting thing in the world.
I know so many times I have seen others look at me and my son, who isn’t on the autism spectrum but who has a number of quirky behaviors that seem to captivate the attention of strangers — when he has an accident that soaks through his pants, talks too loudly at movies (usually perseverating on a word or phrase for what feels like an eternity), or turns eating into a full body experience when we’re at a restaurant.
In those moments, I often wish to simply disappear. I just assume that people don’t understand, that they’re judging my son or my ability to parent.
I have to give a special thanks to the recent post on Rhema’s Hope for not only writing, always full of grace, but for pointing out a short segment on the TV show What Would You Do? that shows the reactions that people have to a family with a child on the spectrum when they go out to eat. (Watch the segment here.)
The reactions of the fellow diners made me reflect that maybe I’ve been underestimating people and that there is no need for a secret sign. Can it be that I’m giving strangers too little credit? And what does my discomfort say about me? Is it possible that it has more to do with me than with them?
Maybe the glares I feel are, in fact, filled with empathy and support. Maybe there’s no need for a secret sign. I’m going to play around with that perspective for a while, and see how it feels. Much to think about.
I’m really curious to know what other folks do in these situations. How do you feel? Does it keep you from going out? Has the feeling changed? How do you show support for strangers, if at all? Do you have a “secret sign”?